The names of the small towns changed as John Edwards traveled through this battleground state Monday, but his message remained the same: A Democratic administration would protect overtime pay, increase the minimum wage and keep jobs from going abroad.
In this town outside Milwaukee, in Oshkosh and then in La Crosse, before partisan crowds, Edwards attacked the Bush administration's changes to overtime regulations, which went into effect Monday and which Edwards said will deprive about 6 million U.S. workers of a way to supplement their incomes.
"We don't want people just to get by, we want them to get ahead," he told a crowd of several hundred at a morning town hall meeting in Racine. "If you're a line cook, you could lose your right to overtime. If you're a police sergeant, you could lose your right to overtime."
The Bush-Cheney campaign said the new rules will grant overtime pay to some workers not now eligible. "This attack is another example of the Kerry campaign trying to mislead American workers," spokesman Matt McDonald said. "The only loser under this reform is the trial lawyers who have created an overtime-lawsuit industry that costs our economy $2 billion per year." Edwards is a former trial lawyer.
The message that rural towns that have lost manufacturing jobs can survive through new economic policies emphasizing retraining and increased federal government investment in small-business development has been the focus for Edwards as he makes a nine-state swing this week.
The Bush campaign, which has been hammering Kerry on defense and terrorism, switched back to the economy Monday with a new ad that recycles earlier charges about Kerry as a tax raiser. Using a comment from the senator -- "We won't raise taxes on the middle class" -- the ad says: "Really? John Kerry's voted to raise gas taxes on the middle class 10 times. He supported a 50-cent-a-gallon gas tax increase . . . 98 votes for tax increases."
The ad deals not with Kerry's current proposals, such as his promise to boost taxes only on those earning more than $200,000 a year, but with selected parts of his Senate record. For example, Kerry briefly voiced support for a 50-cent boost in the gasoline tax in 1994 but never voted for one and later changed his mind. He supported an increase in Social Security taxes, as the ad says, as part of President Bill Clinton's 1993 deficit-reduction package.
Gene Sperling, a former Clinton White House official advising Kerry, called the ad "deceptive" and "the same old garbage." He said the Bush team was picking and choosing from Kerry's legislative record, and "if you use that standard, Dick Cheney raised taxes 144 times. . . . Ronald Reagan was a huge tax increaser."
The economy, more than international issues or controversy over Kerry's Vietnam record, was the issue on the minds of Democratic voters in the communities Edwards visited Monday, and many expressed frustration and uncertainty about their families' futures.
"I'm worried about jobs in this area. This was a highly industrial area and it isn't any longer," said Jean Dorman, 80, a retired social service worker from Racine.
Edwards also hammered away on his familiar theme that the country has been divided in two, one part increasingly wealthy and the other struggling to pay for basic needs such as health care.
When Edwards met with diners at an Oshkosh restaurant, Sandy Koch, a personal banker for 18 years, worried that she will have trouble affording health care once she retires in six to eight years. "Do I have to work until I'm 80?" she asked Edwards. He responded by saying that the government should repeal Bush-backed tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans to afford a better health care system.
Edwards also reiterated that he favored giving tax breaks to businesses that would keep jobs in the country. "At the end of the day," he said, "this is the most important piece to help out families."
Kurtz reported from Washington.